Saturday, October 24, 2015

Critics say air marshals, much wanted after 9/11, are now just ‘bored cops’

WASHINGTON — After the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government assembled a small army of undercover air marshals to protect U.S. flights and prevent similar hijackings.

The prestigious, new law enforcement job drew mostly retired, patriotic FBI agents, police officials and U.S. soldiers, who were assigned to assure jittery passengers that it was safe to return to the nation’s airports.

Fourteen years later, the federal air marshal program is mired in budget cuts, allegations of misconduct and management turmoil, prompting some in Congress to question whether the multibillion-dollar experiment has outlived its usefulness.

Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., a key member of the House Oversight Committee that is investigating problems with the air marshal program, told the agency’s new director at a hearing last month that the program is “probably the least, or certainly one of the least, needed organizations in our entire federal government.” At a price tag of $9 billion over the past 10 years, Duncan called the program “ineffective” and “irrelevant.”

As he left office in January, former Sen. Tom Coburn, D-Okla., then the ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, agreed. “It is unclear what extent the (air marshal) program is reducing risk to aviation security,” he said.

It is a dramatic turnaround for a program once seen as vital in the immediate post-9/11 years to fight terrorism.

Coburn and others say improved airport-screening techniques and reinforced pilot cockpit doors have raised questions about whether air marshals still play a role. At the same time, there have been no significant in-flight terror threats in more than five years. Some air marshals have complained they feel they are merely “riding the bus” as they hopscotch around on domestic and international planes.

Much of the work by the air marshal program is classified, including the size of the staff and its budget. But several former agents told the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau in interviews that some field offices have been closed and agents furloughed, and that training and other support services have been curtailed.

In addition, the agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has been hit recently with several scandals.

In 2012 some agents were accused of setting up sexual liaisons to coincide with their work flights. More recently, some Chicago-based marshals allegedly disguised themselves as pornography producers to hire prostitutes after some trips. There also have been reports of alcohol abuse by marshals.

Roderick Allison, who served as the agency’s assistant administrator for inspections, took over as the new director in May 2014 after allegations that his predecessor and other agency officials inappropriately used their positions to obtain personal firearms from a gun manufacturer.

Duncan acknowledged at an oversight committee last month that the program “has come to be a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the DHS, when 4,000 bored cops fly around the country first class, committing more crimes than they stop.”

Allison, however, defended the program. Though his aides would not make him available for an interview, he told the oversight panel: “Our offices operate on 30,000 feet, in restricted space and have no backup to call upon.”

He said the air marshals “work diligently every day on thousands of flights a year to protect the traveling public.”

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